Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Little Shepherd--a Christmas story for children

IV. Very Real Danger

It wasn’t long, it seemed, before the man in the bandanna stopped and put out a hand to signal Jesse to stop running. He stood, quiet, still as a statue, looking at the rear quarters of a small flock rustled up from sleep, scared of something, but unaware of little Jesse and the bandanna man behind them. 

He leaned into a crouch and signaled Jesse to do the same—and he did, just an arm’s reach behind him. And that’s when he heard a hushed gurgling coming from the darkness, from behind a spiny oak cut in black silhouette against the night sky. A growl. Sure it was. A wolf. Probably two, maybe more. Wolves always ran in packs.

The stranger crouched  down stock still as the dozen sheep kept budging their way backwards toward them, more and more scared, it seemed, snoots up against each other’s flanks as they surged down the slope in reverse to keep the wolf in front of them.

“Behind the tree,” the man told whispered. “You take him, and I’ll wait to see where the others show up.” He pointed with his own crook.

His brother Ezra had taught him what to do when a wolf came, but he’d never stared one flat in the ugly face, not alone anyway. Jesse pointed with his crook at the tree as if asking where to go, even though he knew.

The stranger nodded and pointed again. “Go on,” he said. "Get the leader--we run him off, the others'll scatter.”

The sheep kept staring at the shadowy oak, all the while backing down the hill toward him.

“Just run?” Jesse asked.

“All you got to do is scare him worse than he scares you,” the man told him, nodding his head once more toward the tree.

The whole world seemed to disappear into the shadow of that single oak tree. The low gurgling growl meandered toward them from somewhere out there, somewhere behind the tree.

“Go on! Go right at him!” the man said.

So Jesse did. He gathered every bit of his courage into the tighest fist he could and took off, circled the flock to the left and ran directly at the tree, crook in hand like a sword, until he came close enough to see him--and there he was, gray and dark and wide across the face with bright and shiny eyes glowing with devil’s glitter. He didn’t move—not a muscle, as if he wasn’t scared one bit. Jesse stopped a crook’s length away so the two of them stood there, staring wildly at each other.

“Just scream!” the man in the bandanna said, yelled, from the other side of the flock. “Swing that thing in your hands and scream!” he said.

But Jesse couldn’t raise his arms, the monster wolf’s eyes glowing like hot embers. The growl grew into something fierce, and the shaggy beast deepened that crouch as if he was about to take a flying leap. Jesse watched his own body dragged to the ground. He felt its razor-sharp teeth in his legs, his shoulders, just as if he were a sheep.

Even lower that wolf crouched, and growled even deeper.

“Run him off!” the man yelled from behind him. “You hear me, Jesse? Run him off!”

Little Jesse took the crook in both hands and pulled it back behind his head. All he could do was do all he could do, and when he swung that stick he swung it with such force that he almost lost his footing before the crook of the stick thudded into the wolf’s ribs and that beast yelped like a puppy, yelped like a puppy and scramed, off into the darkness, limping along on a bum right leg.

“And don’t ever come back either, you hear?” Jesse screamed.

He’d done it. His heart felt huge drum, but a wave of something really sweet came over him. The beast was gone.

When he turned around, he saw the sheep had vanished too, scared off just as the wolf had been. He stood straight, his nerves still flashing through his arms and his hands so wildly that he couldn’t even hold that crook straight. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm and looked into the darkness. The wolf had vanished.

“There's no pack?” he asked the stranger, without looking back.

There was no reply.

He turned slowly. The sheep were gone, but so was the stranger.  Once more he was all alone on the slope of the hill. He stepped back from around that spiny oak tree where the wolf had crouched, and tried to see once more into the darkness to be sure that it had gone. Then he listened once again to the sounds of nightfall on the broad and hidden hillsides. No sound—nothing at all.

“He’s gone,” he announced as if the stranger were there beside him. “I ran him off. I whacked him with my crook, and he took off.  He was huge—did you see him?”

No one said a word, nothing at all behind him but a bare hillside—no sheep, no stranger.

But he’d bested the wolf, the one he’d faced down. He knew that evil critter was gone—at least for now. He’d been scared silly, but he’d done it. He’d gathered all of his strength and dared a run at that beast, and when he did, he’d saved the sheep.

But he had no idea where they’d gone—or where the stranger was for that matter, the man in the bandanna who had awakened him to all the danger.

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